Will 3D Phones Fall Flat?

3D technology isn’t just for blockbuster cinema releases and fancy home theaters. The technology is making huge splash on mobile devices, too. There are even rumors that the next iPad will sport 3D abilities, but you don’t have to wait for Apple’s next big product launch. Two new Android smartphones, the LG Thrill and the HTC Evo 3D, already have glasses-free 3D on board. These handsets promise to make watching movies, playing games, and showing off photos much more immersive than on your typical 2D phone. What’s more, both phones are equipped with special dual-lens cameras that let users shoot their own 3D photos and videos.

Even so, many are wondering whether 3D on phones and tablets is the next big thing or just the next big gimmick.

The Nintendo Effect

The first major mobile gadget to test the 3D waters was Nintendo’s 3DS, which launched in March. The device continues the company’s long portable gaming legacy, this time with a 3.5-inch glasses-free 3D screen. At least thus far, sales of the $249 3DS have been lackluster. According to the analyst firm NPD Group, Nintendo sold almost 400,000 3DS units in the first week following its U.S. launch. That’s 100,000 less than what the original Nintendo DS managed back in November 2010. However, the DS is about $100 cheaper than the new 3DS, which may be giving potential shoppers cold feet.

A dearth of compelling 3D content has also contributed to a lukewarm reception among consumers. Michael Pachter, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities, feels that 3DS is still developing as a platform, telling us that, “there is not really enough software for the 3DS yet, so most gamers don’t feel compelled to go out and buy [[one]].” However, he added that “once there is a killer app for the 3DS—that means a game with Mario or Zelda in the title—I think that the 3DS will see a large sales surge.”

Almost on cue, Nintendo recently confirmed plans for a Super Mario 3D title on the 3DS due out later this year. A cross between Super Mario 64 and the very popular Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii, the game will let players use the 3DS’s 3D perspective to better gauge tricky jumps and tackle other tough in-game maneuvers.

Regardless of its slow start, the 3DS is a breakthrough device and certainly paves the way for easier adoption of glasses-free 3D in smart phones. As they say, content is king. Mr. Pachter agrees: “When the content gets there, the consumers will show up.”

Phones Go Beyond Games

Unlike the Nintendo 3DS, the HTC Evo 3D (check out our full review of the Evo 3D) and LG Thrill 4G won’t just rely on games to draw in customers. The Evo 3D, for instance, (available on Sprint) ships right out of the box with the Green Hornet 3D movie pre-loaded, plus access to 3D movies from Blockbuster On Demand. The handset will also come with a demo of the Ultimate Spider-Man: Total Mayhem 3D game created by Gameloft. Users will be able to purchase additional 3D titles from Gameloft’s storefront, including Assassin’s Creed: Altair’s Chronicles and GT Racing Motor Academy. LG’s Thrill 4G smartphone, available through AT&T, will also offer a host of pre-loaded 3D games and movies, and it will feature LG 3D Space, a one-stop shop for 3D content.

In addition to offering more 3D content than the Nintendo 3DS, these two devices offer the advantage of being full-blown Android superphones equipped with ultra-modern components. For example, the Evo 3D boasts a 1.2-GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon CPU and a 4.3-inch screen with a crisp qHD (960 x 540 pixel) resolution. The handset also has two 5-megapixel cameras that can shoot HD video and pictures in both standard and 3D formats. The LG Thrill 4G matches the Evo’s high-end specs with a screaming dual-core TI processor paired with dual-channel memory, a large 4.3-inch (800 x 400 pixel) display, and two 5-MP cameras that capture both 3D and HD pictures and video.

Aside from gauging the appeal of viewing content with that extra dimension, the question remains whether people will leverage such mobile phones to document their own lives in 3D. YouTube’s 3D channel already hosts a fair share of 3D content, from movie trailers to videos created by amateurs with homemade 3D cameras. Flickr also lets users upload 3D images and tag them as such. The folks at LG argue that smartphones will radically increase the amount of Internet-based 3D entertainment. The company says it’s specifically designed the Thrill 4G to make taking and sharing 3D movies simple.

“What people primarily do on their phones is play games, watch short-form [clips], and take their own pictures and videos,” said Tim O’Brien, vice president of marketing at LG MobileComm USA. “We are enabling [that content] on the Thrill 4G through a 3D camera and a YouTube 3D partnership. Users will be able to take 3D movies and watch and share them, all easily accessible on the device.” (Check our hands-on with the Thrill 4G.)

The 3D Chicken and Egg

Mr. O’Brien went on to point out that the Thrill 4G can capture 3D video in 720p HD resolution, then output the footage to 3D-ready HDTVs via its HDMI port. O’Brien posited that this ability could potentially drive interest in 3D-capable televisions, which he admitted have not shown much market penetration yet. Research firm DisplaySearch backs up this assessment, reporting that 3D TVs accounted for just 10 percent of global units sold in Q4 of 2010. The firm predicts that figure to rise to 50 percent by 2014.

Trevor Van Norman, senior marketing manager at Sprint, believes that it’s just a matter of time before 3D goes mainstream. “Adoption of 3D TVs has been a bit slow. Look how long it took for almost everybody to have a flat-panel TV, and they’ve been out for at least 15 years. 3D [adoption] makes a lot more sense in the mobile space especially if a high-end smartphone already has 3D built in. Users typically upgrade to a new device every year or every other year, and the product cycle is a lot quicker than consumer electronics”.

3D technology on smartphones is no doubt in its early stages. While it has yet to really catch on in the living room, the much lower cost of 3D-equipped mobile devices (compared to HDTVs) makes swifter 3D phone adoption likely. When we asked Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis at NPD Group, for his take on 3D phones, he stressed that the number of devices sold with 3D capability is what’s really important. “Handsets by themselves are typically not as strong a voice for developers to create 3D applications. If someone the likes of Apple or Google get into 3D, then there will be a large enough base.”

LAPTOP Senior Writer